Oregon, Washington grapple with Pacific Northwest heat wave

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SALEM, Ore. — Even in the evening Tuesday, people took their smoke breaks in the shade. By 6 pm outside the Recovery Outreach Community Center in Salem, Ore., the temperatures were still hovering near 100 degrees on the second day of what was expected to be an unusually long heat wave in the Pacific Northwest.

Typically, this recovery center is a hub for community members grappling with substance-use disorders and housing insecurity in Salem, a city of about 170,000. But Tuesday, the center doubled as a cooling center — one of about 20 open to the public in Marion County — as part of a broad effort across the Pacific Northwest to protect residents from intense and sometimes deadly heat waves.

One year after the worst Pacific Northwest heat wave on record left hundreds dead, the region finds itself better prepared, even as it continues to grapple with the challenges that come with periods of extreme weather

This week’s heat event already broke daily records across Oregon and Washington state Tuesday: In Salem, the temperature reached a zenith of 103 degrees, tying a previous record set in 1939. Another record high of 102 was set in Portland. Seattle soared to a record 94.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) declared a state of emergency Tuesday in 25 counties lasting until Sunday, and ordered the state’s emergency management department to coordinate a response. Almost the entire region, including parts of Northern California, Nevada and Idaho, were under heat advisories or excessive-heat warnings from the National Weather Service. Some areas of eastern Washington and interior Oregon could see temperatures eclipse 110 degrees this week.

The heat is not predicted to ease until the weekend. Portland and Seattle, both under excessive warnings until Thursday, are forecast to endure historically long streaks of temperatures above 95 and 90 degrees, respectively.

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In Salem, this is the second year in a row that Recovery has offered its space as a cooling center. The first time was during last year’s heat wave in which at least 54 people died in Portland alone, according to officials, the victims were disproportionately older and living alone. Advocates say low-income renters, who may be unable to install or pay for air-cooling devices themselves, are particularly at risk of suffering from heat-related illness during heat waves.

That disaster spurred a reevaluation for the historically temperate region as climate change fuels intensified heat waves. Since then, local governments and nonprofits have ramped up emergency heat relief efforts, tapping into grants and building partnerships to do so.

“Last year was definitely a wake-up call for Oregon,” said Candace Avalos, executive director of Verde, an environmental justice nonprofit in Portland.

In Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, there were four overnight cooling centers Tuesday, along with a daytime center, misting stations and “splash pads” throughout the city. Public transit buses offered free rides to cool locations.

Similar efforts are underway in Washington state. In King County, which includes Seattle, a slew of cooling centers have opened. The city remains the least air-conditioned major metropolitan area in the country: Just 44 percent of homes include some form of air conditioning, according to US Census Bureau data. But that figure doesn’t reflect the surge in air-conditioning purchases in the wake of last year’s blistering weather. In September, the Washington State Department of Commerce began accepting applications for the first time for subsidized air conditioners through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

While memories linger from last year’s record-breaking heat dome, the general public’s response to the current temperatures has appeared less frenzied. Temperatures are expected to crest in the low 90s — and while those temperatures are not unheard of in Seattle, the heat wave’s anticipated duration of five days is unusual. Heat will accumulate in residences by the end of the week, which can make sleeping difficult and increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.

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The city has launched its standard heat wave response plan, which includes cooling centers at libraries, senior centers and community centers. For those who work outdoors, meanwhile, the state announced emergency heat regulations that went into effect mid-June. When the temperature reaches 89 degrees, employers must provide workers with at least a quart of cool water per hour and at least a 10-minute, paid cool-down break every two hours. While heat regulations for outdoor workers have been in place for more than a dozen years, the state’s Department of Labor and Industries has issued emergency regulations for the past three summers while permanent rule changes are under negotiation.

King County also announced the development of its first-ever strategy for mitigating extreme heat last month, a direct response to last year’s heat wave that killed over 30 county residents. The county government applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noting that the agency does not historically give hazard-mitigation grants for extreme heat.

“Last year we experienced the single most deadly climate event in our history, and these events are expected to be longer in duration, and more intense going forward,” Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County, said in a statement. “We must prepare both for the inevitable heat events that will continue to challenge us, and also do what we can to minimize the risk for these becoming even more catastrophic in the future.”

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State and local governments in the Pacific Northwest are also working towards long-term efforts to adapt to extreme heat.

In March, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill committing millions of dollars towards air conditioners and cooling systems for residents who can’t afford them, while funding emergency heat shelters like the ones operating across the state this week. The law also protects tenants installing some air-cooling devices from retaliation from landlords.

In Portland, officials aim to install between 12,000 and 15,000 cooling units and portable heat pumps in low-income households over the next five years. Verde, the Portland nonprofit, is helping coordinate a separate program providing air conditioners to low-income residents. Avalos said there’s an “overwhelming” demand for the program.

Parrish, the assistant manager at Recovery Outreach, said he has noticed more cohesion and organization in the region’s response to this heat wave.

At 6:30 pm Tuesday, the temperature dipped below 95 degrees, the point when the Salem cooling center closes to the public. Parrish replaced a large water jug ​​drained by thirsty visitors while support staff warned their clients about the consistent heat. He expects the cooling center to operate all week.

Scruggs reported from Seattle. Jason Samenow in DC contributed to this report.

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